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Saving the Heart of Borneo

Date Published
February 2, 2021

The Danum Valley Conservation Area in Sabah provides a sanctuary for the Borneo Pygmy Elephants. Photo credit: iStock/Craig Ansibin.

About 22 million hectares of rain forests, known as the Heart of Borneo, make up about a third of Asia’s largest island. These and other equatorial forests serve as the “lungs of the earth,” drawing in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and breathing out oxygen.

About 12 million people, including indigenous groups, depend on the Heart of Borneo not just to clean the air but also for food, medicine, and livelihood.

The plants and animals in the area comprise about 6% of the world’s biodiversity. It is home to such species as the Bornean orangutans and elephants, giant pitcher plants, and Rafflesia flowers.

However, forest conversion and degradation over the years have made these rain forests a top priority for conservation. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) lists it as among the hotspots with the fastest deforestation rates in the world. The warming of the planet has also made the area vulnerable to forest fires.

A trilateral initiative

In 2007, the three countries that share the island launched the Heart of Borneo Initiative. Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, and Malaysia recognized the importance of the island as a “life support system” and committed to work together to protect it and ensure its sustainable development.

Borneo island is part of BIMP-EAGA, which supports the initiative. A strategic priority of this cooperation program is the sustainable management of natural resources through land use planning, water management, biodiversity conservation, and nurturing environmentally sustainable agriculture, fisheries, and tourism.

The Heart of Borneo Initiative addresses such threats as forest conversion into rubber and palm oil plantations, logging for timber and pulp production, forest fires, oil and mining industries, and illegal wildlife trade. These contribute to the loss in forest biodiversity and to greenhouse gas emissions.

Actions and outcomes

Some progress has been made in protecting the rainforests.

Located on the northern coast of Borneo island, Brunei has preserved its abundant rain forests, which comprise about 70% of its territory, through a policy that restricted logging since the 1990s. The country is promoted as an ecotourism destination. Its first protected area, the Ulu Temburong National Park, is a top tourist attraction.

In the Indonesian and Malaysian parts of Borneo, a study cited by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) showed that the expansion of palm oil and pulpwood plantations has been declining since 2012.

Regional and national efforts to protect the rainforests include low-carbon growth measures, payment for ecosystem services, public–private conservation programs, and promoting renewable energy investments.

Partners in conservation

The Heart of Borneo is supported by multilateral organizations and bilateral agencies.

In 2013, a project supported by the Asian Development Bank, Global Environment Facility (GEF), and WWF was launched to help strengthen policies and institutional capacity in Indonesia for forest and biodiversity management as well as develop sustainable livelihood opportunities in the Heart of Borneo.

UNEP and USAID are supporting the restoration of peatlands in Kalimantan in Indonesia. The country set up the International Tropical Peatlands Centre in 2018 to study these ecosystems, which cover a large portion of the island.

A United Nations Development Programme and GEF backed biodiversity conservation in multiple-use forest landscapes in Sabah, Malaysia. The 7-year project, which was completed in 2019, focused on three protected areas: Maliau Basin, Danum Valley, and Imbak Canyon. Among its achievements is having about 400,000 hectares of forest areas certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international market-based certification program. According to UNEP, this is the largest certified area in the country.

There are other projects and initiatives but more needs to be done to save the Heart of Borneo.

Biodiversity loss and disease outbreaks

A new report from WWF says the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, which is linked to the destruction of natural habitats, could provide greater impetus to enhance biodiversity conservation.

Researchers suspect COVID-19 is zoonotic in origin, which means it may have come from an animal. Measures to mitigate the risks of another disease outbreak should consider including the protection of biodiversity-rich areas, such as the Heart of Borneo.

The pandemic however has dealt a huge blow to conservation efforts, which were affected by the slump in tourism, a major source of funding. Protected areas were closed to tourists. Sanctuaries for primates, such as Bornean orangutans, were closed relatively early in the crisis because of the risk that humans could transmit COVID-19 to great apes.

Conservationists also warned of that unregulated logging, wildlife trafficking, and other illegal activities may increase because of economic hardships.